ATHENS (AFP) ― Greece announced Wednesday its return to the debt markets after a four-year absence on the same day protestors launched the first anti-austerity strike of the year, crippling key services across the country.
While up to 20,000 people demonstrated in the streets of the capital Athens and second city Thessaloniki, disrupting rail and ferry services and closing government offices, Greece’s Finance Ministry said the country would issue medium-term debt for the first time since 2010.
“The Republic of Greece today has charged international banks to conduct an imminent issue of 5-year bonds in euros under English law,” said a finance ministry statement, without indicating how much it plans to raise.
One of the banks running the deal said Athens is expected to sell at least 500 million euros ($690 million) of five-year bonds as early as Thursday.
The announcement came on the eve of a visit from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the head of Europe’s largest economy who played a key role in ensuring Greece didn’t crash out of the eurozone at the height of the debt crisis two years ago.
|Pensioners shout anti-austerity slogans outside the Health Ministry office in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki on Wednesday. (AP-Yonhap)|
Athens’ move was welcomed by the International Monetary Fund, which has provided monetary support for the troubled economy.
The head of the IMF’s mission in Greece, Poul Thomsen, told journalists in Washington: “This reflects the success of the program.”
A return to borrowing on the bond markets represents an important milestone in Greece’s financial rehabilitation.
Athens found itself frozen out of debt markets in 2010 after it revealed its public accounts had been falsified and was forced to seek a bailout from the EU and IMF to keep the country from defaulting.
Despite the return the market, some investors were unimpressed.
“Given its low rating, regardless of the pricing level, we’re not intending to participate,” said Joszef Szabo, Head of Global Macro at Aberdeen Asset Management.
The last issue of five-year bonds four years ago had an interest rate of 6.1 percent, but experts believe that Greece might pay investors a rate of return as low as 5.0 percent this time.
Those who took to the streets on Wednesday said Greece’s return to the debt markets would be of little consequence to most people.
“Everything they’re saying about the return to the markets has nothing to do with us, the workers,” said secondary school teacher Nikos Toutouzakis at a march in Athens.
“It’s only capital that profits and not the workers,” he said.
Greek unions Wednesday held a 24-hour strike against the tax hikes and spending and job cuts that the government has had to impose in order to get the EU-IMF loans, shutting down ferry services to the country’s world-famous islands, disrupting rail travel and closing pharmacies and several government offices.
Ships remained anchored in the main port Piraeus near Athens, with the country’s main shipping union observing the strike call.
The national railways, including Athens commuter trains, were also disrupted, though the country’s airports continued a normal service.
Pharmacists have also staged walkouts over plans to allow medicine sales in retail outlets other than pharmacies.
Protesters close to the Communist party marched in central Athens, with a separate march by the main ADEDY and GSEE unions assembling nearby.
“Everyone needs to respond to these politicians that are destroying the people, the workers, pensioners and the young. There are 1.5 million jobless,” said Vasso Papapdopolo, a retiree at the Athens protest.
The center-right government of Prime Minister Antonis Samara is currently in talks with Greece’s creditors over the next instalment of funding from its multi-billion-euro bailout.
Loan payments to Greece worth some 8.5 billion euros ($11.8 billion) are pending.
According to reports, the creditors are pushing for additional civil-service layoffs and changes to a 1982 law on strikes to reduce their frequency.
Hard-hit by the economic crisis, Greece is experiencing a sixth straight year of recession and has a staggering 28-percent unemployment rate.
The so-called “troika” of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund first bailed out Greece in 2010 with a program worth 110 billion euros.
When that failed to stabilize the economy, they agreed a much tougher second rescue in 2012 worth 130 billion euros, plus a private-sector debt write-off of more than 100 billion euros.
Five general strikes were staged last year.